Underneath an Arkham Moon
Jessica Amanda Salmonson and W. H. Pugmire
Jessica Amanda Salmonson is the author of The Deep Museum: Ghost Stories of a Melancholiac, Ou Lu Khen and the Beautiful Madwoman, Anthony Shriek, A Silver Thread of Madness, The Swordswoman, Mr. Monkey and Other Sumerian Fables, The Garments of Shekhinah, The Eleventh Jaguarundi and Other Mysterious Persons, and the Tomoe Gozen saga. She is a vegetarian, gardener, mystic, and curmudgeon.
W. H. Pugmire has been writing Lovecraftian weird fiction since the mid-1970s. His recent books include Uncommon Places (Hippocampus Press, 2012) and The Strange Dark One: Tales of Nyarlathotep (Miskatonic River Press, 2012). His newest books are Encounters with Enoch Coffin (Dark Regions Press, 2013; written in collaboration with Jeffrey Thomas) and Bohemians of Sesqua Valley (Arcane Wisdom), which debuted at the NecronomiCon in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2013.
(To the memory of Robert Bloch)
Our lives are not measured in years. They’re not measured in achievement. Our lives are measured in nightmares and sorrows.
—The Commonplace Book of Henry Anthony Wilcox
I beg thee,” said Ambrose teasingly. “Let me touch Mehmeh.”
“No. She’s sleeping.”
“I’ve a right!” he said petulantly. “I’m her cousin!”
“Leave her be,” said I, and tied the collar of my cape more tightly about my throat. Ambrose was a pretty thing, considering; in profile he might have been a Pre-Raphaelite maiden, though the long dark silken hair was wispy and thin.
We sat in September’s fading twilight. Seventeenth-century tombs slumbered beneath patrician trees. The low ossuary on which we rested provided sufficient comfort. There was no wind, yet slender branches of a giant willow moved subtly, sinuously, in the gathering dusk, elongated leaves whispering secrets of many who have passed beneath the sod.
This tree stood in the center of the cemetery. Its ancient trunk engulfed a weathered, illegible slab. Long ago the stone had borne a cultic symbol, round as the moon, with one crater gazing. I leaned and nudged Ambrose while concocting a fantastic remark about the spectral nourishment such rugged roots must suck from the charnel earth, and my barefooted companion laughed.
“That’s exactly why I come here,” Ambrose sighed, as he etched the earth with the middle toe of his right foot, the while balancing a foreboding tome on his left knee. He had the aspect of an aristocratic dandy and might have disguised himself to succeed in any corner of the world but for shoulders even more narrow than could be explained by his lack of arms. He required no sleeves, and an opening only for the left shoulder from which protruded but two fingers, fingers that were like the antennae of an outsized insect.
He continued as if reading a poem from his book: “I suck the debris of dream that leaked beneath this ground from out the chilling brains of the dead. Those brains have rotted into dust, but dreams can never dim. They call to our witch-blood. They seep upward from out the sod, into our chalk flesh, burrowing within our skulls. They need only the occult persuasion of those of us who can intuit their presence and existence.”
He had finished the etching in the earth, and pointing with a finger-like toe told me, “You see here, this emblem that I am copying from your gift of this priceless book, De Vermis Mysteriis? Should you decide to sink onto your knees and nuzzle that sigil you will taste such secrets of the worm as you have never known.”
I sensed him turn to look at me. I thought him in fine spirit, but his moods were never stable. He looked angry as he spat.
“But why do I bother with loquacity, when you so completely ignore my ruminations? You’ve been away from Arkham for so long a time. I would have thought you’d enjoy drinking in her corrupted ambience, her elixir of things past, such as I, her oracle, possess. Do you still find my mental processes more ridiculous than profound? I dislike being treated with indifference; better just to say you find me foolish than to look away in silence. Ah, I could kill you if you weren’t the first one that I loved; even a man such as I has an ego. What on earth are you staring at?”
In truth I did find him absurd, and what’s worse, predictable; but at the same time he represented safety, as beneath his “posturing in purple” was a nurturing spirit. I had returned to Arkham from the “real” world with fewer victories than I expected. I had been defeated, I of noble blood, noble of its kind. I needed Ambrose’s familiarity, even that part of him that could slip from poetry to venom in a single heartbeat.
So I smiled at his momentary anger. I sighed before giving him reply. “What indeed,” said I, and pointed. “At that unearthly thing. Do you see it, up there, on the attic window of that tottering old house across the road?”
Ambrose’s pupils opened full wide until none of the paleness of his irises remained. That was a beautiful thing to me; and it made me say, “Isn’t it sweet, our kindred’s ability to penetrate gloom of night? A lightless curtain falls upon us; and yet we see—beautifully we see. Ah, but I should take all that more for granted had I not been so long absent. It’s only Arkham dusk, and we are Arkham devils. I’ve forgotten, since I’ve been away, how the lucent moon over our witch-town fills us with rare lunacy, enhances arcane senses.”
I turned my gaze from Ambrose and back to the ruined house. “Look at the reflected moon on that attic window,” said I, “and tell me it isn’t a rare sight. The moon has never worn its shape so oddly, has never radiated with such a sickly hue. Whenever has the Mare Insularum looked so like a weepy eye?”
I wrapped my arms together as the hump on my back shuddered slightly. Mehmeh could never speak, and most of my kin assumed her simple, like a child. She was not simple. But even the rare senses of our kind could never pierce the intensity of her lonely cognizance.
“Your twin grows restless,” Ambrose whispered, and I knew that he ached to touch the deformation beneath my cape, however sternly I forbade him to do so. She was no longer sleeping and I had no more excuse to give. He scooted backward along the tomb’s slab as I unhooked the clasp at my throat. The cape fell back, and Ambrose leaned forward, close, and said, “Sweet Mehmeh. Lovely Mehmeh,” as though speaking to a child. He turned his two-fingered shoulder toward Mehmeh and delicately petted her cheek. She spoke to him in the only way she could: “Meh. Meh. Meh. Ah meh meh.” It was an endearing noise, like that of a pet, and I well knew Ambrose loved her as he might love a sister or a niece, if not only a housecat or jewel-scaled serpent.
She and I were fused along our spines. In places her spine and mine were one. She had barely any legs, and the tiny feet of an infant, but her arms were long and spindly and curiously hinged so that if she wanted to, she could embrace me at her back. However, spasticity made a calm embrace unlikely, and Ambrose ducked expertly when she thrashed at him with her claws. “Dear Mehmeh,” he said. “Dear, dear Mehmeh.”
He cocked his head and wore a sly grin. He turned his eyes from me and Mehmeh to gaze again at the antiquated house that rotted beneath miasmic moonglow. He said, “I could tell you curious legends of that haunted house, if you cared to know it—though I would hate to bore you further.”
Ah, so he was still a little angry with me, but mostly ameliorated by the calming influence Mehmeh had upon him, now as during our mutual childhoods. I watched his raised, nearly simian foot hover near me, hesitating, and then move in curious fashion to make some outré sign unto the moon. Softly, I laughed at my cousin and then pushed off the ossuary so as to fall onto my knees near to his other foot, which I took into my hands and, bending lower, kissed.
With my face so much nearer to the ground, I could sense the power of his etched sigil that he had copied from the rare tome I had given him as gift. I was suddenly struck by the possibility that this symbol, from the book I had found for him while I dwelt in Boston, may once have been matched by the nearly worn emblem on the tomb, perhaps also of that oriel window of the antique house. Had I not in all innocence selected that volume myself, I would have suspected some conspiracy. For the witch-born, could there ever be such a thing as coincidence?
Releasing his foot, I sank my face onto that symbol in the earth and took the scent of the soil, not minding if particles of dust adhered to lips or entered nostrils. I needed to comprehend that which was most incomprehensible. I whispered the sound of that arcane symbol; as the noise sighed from me I could feel the nails of Mehmeh’s spidery hands sink into my buttocks and clutch at flesh that began to bleed. As I stood, Ambrose pressed his youthful forehead against mine, as if to bless me with unholy benediction.
“You were going to tell me the legend of that house,” I reminded him as I raised my eyes and examined the haunted mansion.
“Do you remember, eight years ago, when a story called ‘The Attic Window’ appeared in Whispers? That was before you began writing your macabre poems for the magazine.”
“Yes, the story was by your friend, Carter, to whom you’ve yet to introduce me. He’s turned novelist, hasn’t he? I recall the story as being rather slight but written with a wonderful conviction that I found compelling. Its grotesque and violent climax shocked some readers and the magazine was pulled from shelves in, where was it, Indiana? It caused no such sensation here.”
Ambrose lifted his nude foot and pointed to the house across the street. “That’s the place that inspired Carter’s story—that house of minacious reputation. Over the decades there have been reports—legends, rather—of a thing with a blemished eye that huddles near that attic window, the one on which yon moon is so curiously reflected. That thing, it was whispered, was more than a beast yet less than a man. It was said to roam out of its habitation in darkest night and steal into the rooms of sleeping mortals, resting on a victim’s chest like some incubus glowering with a darkened visage that by stages grows refulgent, until the sleeper wakes with gaping bloody gashes on chest or back. Carter had heard tell of such incidents in which chests were torn full wide and the heart was taken; he incorporated them into his shocking story. What he did not suspect was that the slain had the better of it; the survivors seemed thereafter to possess nothing of a soul, and if not catatonic were at least incapable of beneficence or pleasure.”
Ambrose was silent for some few moments, and a curious expression dimmed his eyes. “I ventured within that old place once, alone. You know that I am not a timid fellow. Even so, there was an aura of danger so palpable that it chased me from that place, as I didn’t want its power or its aura to corrupt my dreaming. I remain even now convinced there was a presence, and not at all certain it achieved no degree of dominion over me. I could almost taste it in the closed air of the house, the diseased dreaming of some nameless agency.”
“Very wise of you to forsake those sullen rooms. We Arkham devils are prudent indeed. As much as we love to evoke the sleeping dreams of a witch-town, we recognize those pockets of horror that are best left to their own anguished slow corrosion. We will not be found dancing beneath the moon in some ghoul-infested graveyard atop Hangman’s Hill, although we may whistle as we pass such a place so as to charm its sequestered denizens.”
“Will you not, then?” said Ambrose, clearly doubtful of my claim of reticence.
“Well, tonight, I confess, I am feeling bold, and bored.”
I rose to my feet and faced the house.
“Are you certain?” said my cousin, and I knew that had he the arm with which to take hold of me, he would have stayed my momentum. The jaundiced moon was no longer reflected on the attic window. I raised my hands toward the ancient edifice so as to feel its moody climate of daemonic decay. I sensed the things of the past, things long dead, and others not fully deceased. I felt them as a psychic pulse emanating from the house.
“Surely you don’t mean to venture into that den of madness and murder,” said Ambrose, but he already knew the answer. “I would counsel not!”
“Then why did you suggest this meeting place?”
“Not to tempt you, surely!” he protested.
Ignoring his alarm, I followed my own senses, walking out of the graveyard and across the road. I knew that I was answering an esoteric instinct, and my twin knew it as well, for she dug her nails deeper into my flesh and began a muted complaint of “Meh, meh, meh, meh!” She flung her long thin arms above her head and wrapped them around me. Blood issued from my bared shoulders, for my cape was left behind, and my sister kicked her tiny feet and thrashed her twiggy arms as if to convince me to pry no further into inapprehensible mystery.
I remained oblivious to Mehmeh’s tearing touch. I was more heedful of her palpitating little heart. But I could comprehend another pulsation before me, as if the house shuddered at the hazard of my advance. And it was queer, but I felt that this house was in some forgotten and foreboding manner the symbolic soul of our sorcerous village, this brooding Arkham, this realm of fantastic secrets. It stood before me like some dismal echo of distant pasts, a storehouse of filched hearts, the hub of prisoned souls. Although it had stood for centuries, for all its disrepair there was nothing decrepit or frail about its aura. It had a certain iron strength.
A curious blend of threat and welcome embraced me as I began to climb the steps to the porch, as though I were kindred, lost and newly found. The manse gathered its shadows around me. Here was an edifice as tainted as my witch-blood; I sense that very elixir surge through my veins with a queer vitality.
I stood before the door and saw that vandals had shattered one of the small windowpanes. There were small shards of glass at my feet. Crookedly, I smiled, for one windowpane only had been violated, among the rich offering of windows the dwelling presented. Whatever momentary courage the trespasser had gloried in it had been short-lived.
Bending low, I picked up a shard of glass and poked it into an extended finger. With beads of blood I wrote my name, Alluna, upon the ancient wood of the door. With the final pressure of my finger on the aged wood, the door opened, granting me ingress.
Shadows, dust, and cobwebs moved before me as I stepped into their region. A fungal gleam crept along the mildew walls, like some putrescent little cousin of St. Elmo’s Fire. My diminutive sibling had stopped ripping at my flesh; she clung to my shoulders from fright and no longer made a sound. I could feel palpitations of her puny heart at my—our—spine.
I climbed one interior staircase, and then a second, and a third, high and higher, toward an attic room where remnants of a broken lock hung on hinges and the door stood open bare inches, wedged upon the warped boards of the floor.
The room’s ceiling was quite low; I had to stoop as I squeezed through the door. How incomprehensible, the stench within this small area, like a peculiarly infected seepage.
A draft of cool air touched me. I turned to glance at the attic window whereon I had seen the distorted reflection of the sickly moon. I realized that I had seen no such thing, for there was no glass inside the window frame, and a cool night breeze began to pour inside the musty compartment. Shadows of various hue lurked at corners, one of which tickled my fancy in some fantastic way. I turned my head to gaze.
A perverse urge persuaded me to summon the beast of legend, for such it seemed I had seen as a blur of shadow expanding with motion. An upper portion of the vague shape blossomed into a sphere of sickly yellow hue; by its faint fungal glow I quietly studied the distorted head, the slit that was its slimy mouth, the blemished eye.
To outsiders, there is both horror and disdain for our inbred kind, but from within, those among us who are least human are most divine. And our desires, our natures, draw us toward the hallowed night, the aphotic marriage chamber. The pheromonal scent drew from me a smile of adoration, for I recognized in this creature’s pallid luminosity the true and divine spark of angels, inclusive of those fallen. An egomaniacal pride sprang within me, that I might be the Mother of the One, the darkly beatific and transcendently inhuman savior. Part instinct, part occult knowing, I was drawn toward the creature of the attic, as he was drawn to me.
His own excitement at scent of me increased his wan sheen. He took a step forward from out the darker shadows, and I saw by his nakedness his knobby, knotted, rawboned arms and legs, the sunken cavity of his skeletal chest and torso, the outsized and round head that wobbled and shined and oozed a greasy sweat.
I saw that this enticing monstrosity was aroused. I wanted to strip myself for his sake, but the glowering inflamed eye now held me in rapt thrall. He eased his way closer, closer, until his long bony arms could reach me. My arms were heavy, but I raised my hand, palm up, a finger extended, the finger with the tiny wound. He bent his head and I thought he would suck my finger for the blood, as indeed he seemed to contemplate.
But then swiftly the talons of his twisted fingers began to tear away my dress. I tried to find the strength to take him in a most loving embrace, but with a nearly angry swiftness he spun me round and shoved me violently, face first, into a rubble pile of bones of bats and birds and rodents. It was Mehmeh he desired; and it was I that was forsaken.
Mehmeh had for long moments grown stark still. But now she was mewling. She spread her dwarfish legs. She wrapped her spidery arms around her paramour. As she was part of me I felt as well as she the painful thrusting of the twisted member.
My face and breasts were poked and pierced by tiny bones upon the floor, as Mehmeh and the moonfaced creature rutted. I was no more than their bed, an object, not the beloved, and for the first time in my life I hated Mehmeh, hated that she and never I might be the Mother of Night’s Ally.
A spiteful delirium of animosity enveloped my psyche with such venom that I could not long remain conscious. I was benumbed. I felt myself fading from existence, failing in my battle to stay alert. The sound of repellent lovers receded, became fainter and more remote, as torpidity overcame all awareness, and oblivion devoured me.
For weeks or months I stayed inside myself, in cloudy depression, and had not Ambrose volunteered as nurse to me and Mehmeh, surely I would have dried up and died. He tended to us lovingly and tried not to reveal his favoritism for Mehmeh. In time my convalescence permitted me to sit while Ambrose read to me, to eat without his having to hold a spoon to my lips, even at times to converse without severe signs of despondency.
One evening I lay on my side facing the wall, as Ambrose fed and cooed at Mehmeh, his toes as nimble as fingers when tending to his little cousin. Her stomach had become a taut protrusion. Ambrose murmured solemnly: “I will always take care of you Mehmeh, Alluna. The three of you. All I have ever wanted is a sweet nocturnal family.”
My spirits calmed, and both Mehmeh and I descended toward slumber as Ambrose intoned: “Thou art the Light. Thou art the Darkness. For what is the Pitch of Night but Light unmanifest? Yea, though I stride in the furnace of dawn, thou art my shade, my dark respite; thou art the cool air, the trinity of My Stygian Lord, the Mother of the Lord of Night, and Nursemaid of the Divine Illuminator. Amen.”